Category Archive: Times of Israel

Archaeologists find holiest part of Vilnius synagogue razed by Nazis, Soviets

Mayor of Lithuanian capital says school built over Great Synagogue of Vilna to be demolished, turned into memorial as ‘bimah’ is discovered at site

Members of an international team of archaeologists work to unearth parts of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius on July 25, 2018. (AFP Photo/Petras Malukas)

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AFP) — For decades, little did the principal of a kindergarten in Lithuania’s capital realize that his office stood on top of a sacred part of Vilnius’ 17th century Jewish temple, once famous across Europe.

An international team of archaeologists on Thursday announced the discovery of the most revered part of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius, Lithuania’s major Jewish shrine before it was destroyed by Nazi and Soviet regimes.

“We’ve found the bimah, the central prayer platform which was in Tuscan Baroque style. It was one of the central features of the synagogue,” Jon Seligman from Israel’s Antiquities Authority told AFP.

“It is really a very exciting development. When we talk about the presentation of the site to the public in the future, this will be one of the central features of the display,” he added.

The green and brown, brick and mortar bimah — a raised platform from which the Jewish holy book, the Torah, is read — was unearthed just beneath the principal’s office of a former school built in the 1950s by the Soviet regime.

The synagogue, dating from the 1630s, was the most important shrine for Lithuania’s once vibrant Jewish community.

The city attracted Yiddish-speaking writers and scholars, earning it the title of “Jerusalem of the North.”

Before the war, Jews accounted for around one-third of the city’s then 60,000 residents, but most of them perished under Nazi Germany’s 1941-1944 occupation.

The Nazis burned down the shrine and the remains were later demolished by the Soviet regime that built a kindergarten, later turned into the primary school, on the property.

Tears and prayers

“This isn’t just an archaeological discovery,” said Faina Kukliansky, the leader of Lithuania’s tiny Jewish community of around 3,000 people out of a total population of 2.9 million.

“It helps to better understand Jewish life here but also the destructive ideologies of the Nazi and Soviet regimes,” she added.

Simonas Gurevicius, who leads a separate Jewish association in Vilnius, said he cried when he prayed at the newly discovered site.

“Maybe I was the first one to pray here 77 years after the last prayers by Vilnius ghetto martyrs,” he told AFP.

Work at the synagogue site by Lithuanian, Israeli and American archaeologists is paid for mostly by Lithuania’s fund for Jewish communal property seized by Nazi Germany and then kept by the Soviet regime.

Vilnius authorities closed the school last year and plan to replace the building with a memorial that would display synagogue artifacts within the next five years.

“The school will be demolished within two years and we’ll create a respectful site, displaying rich Jewish heritage by 2023 when Vilnius celebrates its 700th birthday,” Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Simasius told AFP.


Billy Joel says he wore Star of David at concert after ‘enraged’ by Trump

Singer-songwriter says he donned the Holocaust-style patch in protest of US president’s statement that both sides were to blame for Charlottesville violence

Billy Joel wears a jacket with the Star of David during the encore of his 43rd sold out show at Madison Square Garden on August 21, 2017, in New York City. (Myrna M. Suarez/Getty Images via JTA)

JTA — Most artists would see playing one concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden as a crowning achievement. Billy Joel has now done it 100 times.

Before and after his landmark show last week at the “World’s Most Famous Arena,” the native Long Islander gave a series of interviews about his legacy. In one with CBS News, he was asked about the most memorable moments during his incredible — and likely all-time record-breaking — MSG run.

After mentioning the nights that involved his daughter Della onstage, Joel brought up the concert during which he wore a yellow Star of David.

Joel pinned the star to his jacket during the encore of a Garden show last August, shortly after white supremacists and neo-Nazis led a deadly march in Charlottesville, Virginia.

A white supremacist carrying a Nazi flag into Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 12, 2017. (AP/Steve Helber)

“This past year or so, there was the night I wore the Star of David, after the Charlottesville incident,” he said.

Although Joel is usually described as atheist or secular, his father was a German-born Jew who recalled the rise of Hitler and lost relatives in the Holocaust. CBS interviewer Anthony Mason pointed out that Joel usually avoids taking political stands.

On the weekend of the rally, US President Donald Trump said “both sides” were to blame for the violence that occurred  — and that were some “very fine people” among the far-right marchers as well as their opponents. That struck a dark chord with the songwriter.

“I had to do something that night,” Joel responded. “The president said [after the Charlottesville rally], you know, ‘There’s some good people on that side …’ No, Nazis aren’t good people.

“It really enraged me, actually,” he continued. “My old man, his family got wiped out. They were slaughtered in Auschwitz. Him and his parents were able to get out. But then he was in the US Army during the war and fought with Patton and was shot at by Nazis. … My family suffered. And I think I actually have a right to do that.”

While many found the act courageous, it prompted some criticism.

But the singer also started a trend. Soon after, TV star Nev Schulman and musician and producer Jack Antonoff (both outwardly Jewish) wore Jewish stars at the MTV Video Music Awards — Schulman wore one pinned to his suit jacket, and Antonoff wore one in necklace form.

Lena Dunham, Antonoff’s girlfriend at the time, said he ordered the necklace after feeling like Nazis had become a “mainstream thing again.”


Nazi-confiscated pen helps ToI track down survivor’s son, rewrite family history

International Tracing Service and Times of Israel journalist jointly find descendants of Istvan Rokza, to restitute his stripped possessions and unearth buried heritage

When Hungarian-Jewish teenager Istvan Rokza arrived at the Neuengamme concentration camp in northern Germany in late 1944, he had very little on him — only 20 pengo (then the Hungarian currency) and a “Tintenkuli,” a black stylograph-type pen. The Nazis confiscated these from Rokza, placing them in an envelope and listing the contents on the outside.

Rokza survived the war, but died in 1996 without ever seeing the money or pen again. Infinitely worse, he was never reunited with his mother Hedwig (Miriam), father Anton (Shlomo) and older brother Gyorgy.

He also never learned their fates. He had heard a rumor that perhaps his brother had returned to Budapest after the war, but for all intents and purposes, Rokza believed he was alone in the world.

Rokza moved on with his life, immigrating to Israel in mid-1949 and rarely speaking of his wartime experiences. However, unbeknownst to the Holocaust survivor, his pen had remained intact in Germany. It was one of thousands of confiscated personal belongings recovered by Allied forces at the Gestapo headquarters in Hamburg, or at the Neuengamme, Dachau and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps as they liberated Europe. These items were deposited with various archives and restitution organizations in Germany.

Yaron Roksa (left) receives pen that was confiscated from his father by the Nazis from ITS director Floriane Hohenberg, Jaffa, July 3, 2018. (Laura Ben-David/Courtesy of ITS)

This month, 22 years after Rokza’s death, his pen was returned to his family in Israel thanks to the joint efforts of the International Tracing Service (ITS) and this Times of Israel reporter.

In 1963, the German government transferred some 4,500 envelopes containing confiscated items to the ITS, a massive archive containing a staggering amount of material, most of it collected by Allied forces as they liberated Europe, beginning in 1943. Located in Bad Arolsen, Germany, it is a complex of six buildings filled from floor to ceiling with 30 million original documents relating to the fates of 17.5 million victims of Nazi persecution. Since the war — and especially in its immediate aftermath — the institution’s primary purpose has been to trace the fates of these people.

Envelope in which Istvan Rokza’s pen and money were placed at the Neuengamme concentration camp. (Courtesy of ITS)

Between 1963 and 2015, roughly 1,500 items were either successfully returned by ITS directly to owners, or were given to Red Cross societies operating behind the Iron Curtain in hopes that they could help in the effort.

An article I wrote for The Times of Israel last February about ITS’s new #StolenMemory campaign to restitute the remaining 3,000 items led me to play a role in returning Rokza’s pen to his eldest son Yaron and the rest of the large family that Rokza established here in Israel.

“I can’t express what it means to me to have this pen,” Yaron Roksa said as ITS director Floriane Hohenberg handed it to him in an intimate ceremony in the lounge of a hotel in Jaffa on July 3.

According to Hohenberg, 164 of the remaining 3,000 items have been returned since November 2016. Six ITS staff members assigned exclusively to this project continue to work on giving back the remaining objects.

“We have names associated with all the objects, but for 950 of them, we still don’t know the country of origin of the original owner,” Hohenberg said.

Of the thousands of personal effects, only a handful are known to have belonged to Jews. And among those, only Rokza was believed to have ended up in Israel.

International Refugee Organization document stating that Istvan Rokza was at Beth Bialik DP camp in Salzburg, Austria in June 1949 awaiting immigration to Israel. (Courtesy of ITS)

This is where I got involved: Hohenberg recently contacted me and asked me to see if I could find Rokza or his family. There was no confirmation that Rokza had actually immigrated to Israel or remained here. The only thing I had to go on was an International Refugee Organization document from Austria dated June 1949 stating that assistance to Istvan Rokza was being discontinued. The stated reason was “ISR,” which presumably meant that he was poised to immigrate to Israel.

ITS emailed me a file with all the documents they had gathered on Rokza and his Tintenkuli pen. I reviewed the documents carefully and summarized all the relevant information that might help me locate the Holocaust survivor:

  • His name on wartime and post-war records appears as ISTVÁN ROKZA/ ROXA/ ROKSZA (different spellings of the family name).
  • He was born May 10, 1928, in Budapest, Hungary, to parents Anton Roksza and Hedwig Füllöp.
  • He listed on his Displaced Person (DP) registration card that he had been learning the bicycle repair trade in Budapest before being deported.
  • At age 16, he was deported in late 1944 to the Neuengamme concentration camp. He was later transported with other Jewish inmates to Bergen-Belsen, which was liberated on April 15, 1945, by British forces.
  • He was released from the Bergen-Belsen hospital set up by the Allies on July 15, 1945.
  • On July 17, 1945, he was evacuated to Sweden on the “Prins Carl” ship.
  • Documentation from the ADC/Joint shows that he was still in Sweden in November 1947.
  • Documents from June 1949 indicate that he was by that time at the Beth Bialik DP Camp in Sazlburg, Austria and a farm worker (presumably preparing for aliyah to Israel).

Istvan Rokza and his pen appear on a Nazi list of prisoners’ personal effects at the Neuengamme concentration camp. (Courtesy of ITS)

I conducted research and networked with anyone I could think of who could help me, from journalists to historians to genealogists. And this being the age of social media, I also checked Facebook. I even reached out to the Fountain Pen Hospital in New York to learn more about the pen itself.

A contact who used to work at Yad Vashem suggested I inquire at the Museum of Hungarian Speaking Jewry in Safed. Staff there told me that the surname Rokza was very rare among Hungarian Jews and that they were unaware of anyone with it in Israel, which made me suspect that Rokza might have Hebraicized his name. That would obviously make finding him and his descendants a lot harder.

The museum staff did, however, provide me with a page from a document titled, “Counted Remnant: Register of the Jewish Survivors in Budapest,” published by the Hungarian Section of the World Jewish Congress in 1946. Rokza’s older brother Gyorgy appears on the list. It seems that Rokza’s suspicion about his brother’s whereabouts was true.

In the end, an Israeli genealogist named Jules Feldman determined for me that Rokza did make aliyah, and lived out his life in Israel, by looking up genealogical records using Rokza’s birth date and approximate date of immigration. The catch was that there was no Istvan Rokza, only a Yosef Roksa — but my guess, based on identical birth dates, was that this was the same person.

After some trial and error with phone numbers, I eventually reached Yuval Roksa, one of Rokza’s grandsons. He led me to Rokza’s eldest son Yaron, who lives in Kiryat Shemona.

From left: Dan Kabilo, Yaron Roksa, Ravid Kabilo. Jaffa, July 3, 2018. (Laura Ben-David/Courtesy of ITS)

“I was in shock when I got your call,” an emotional Yaron Roksa, 61, told me when we met, along with Hohenberg, on July 3. Roksa also brought along his brother-in-law Dan Kabilo and his nephew Ravid Kabilo.

Roksa said that his father, otherwise a habitual storyteller, had not only refused to speak of his wartime experiences, but also never sought recognition or reparations as a Holocaust survivor because he did not have a number tattooed on his arm.

Hohenberg brought along to the restitution meeting a file with high-resolution copies of all the ITS documents on Rokza and reviewed them with his son. He was surprised to learn even the basics, such as his grandparents names. He also had been unaware that Yosef, who worked in agriculture and as a truck driver until retiring, had ever been called Istvan.

Roksa was surprised to see documents showing that a German lawyer had corresponded with ITS on behalf of Istvan Rokza/Yosef Roksa in 1957 seeking evidence to support a case for reparations.

“I had no idea about this. He certainly never got any money,” Roksa said.

Hohenberg also had documents indicating that Istvan Rokza had been imprisoned in Hungarian labor camps before being transferred to Neuengamme.

“My father was missing the fingers on his right hand. He always said that he lost them when he was pushed into a saw when he was forced to work in carpentry. So this information about the Hungarian labor camps makes sense,” Yaron Roksa said.

The disability never prevented his active father from doing things.

“He wrote with his right hand, and he was athletic. He liked sports like boxing, running and soccer — and he was the Israeli ping pong champion when he was young,” Roksa said.

Roksa said he looked forward to sharing what he has learned about his late father with his 90-year-old mother Sarah, a Romanian Holocaust survivor, and the rest of the family. Yosef Roksa leaves a legacy of five children, 19 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren to date.

The family may be even larger if Gyorgy Rokza or his descendants can be located. Yaron Roksa has asked ITS to search for them.

The pen is being given to grandson Ravid Kabilo, 21, for safe keeping. He said he will frame it and hang it on the wall.

“I am glad we were able to bring some closure to this family. Knowing that the grandson will keep the pen and tell the story is keeping the memory alive for future generations,” Hohenberg said.


Yad Vashem historian: ‘We can live with’ much of Israel-Poland Shoah declaration

Dina Porat says she took part in talks on a ‘personal’ basis, disputing claim by Netanyahu aides that museum signed off on Holocaust statement

Dina Porat, chief historian of Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, at the museum on May 29, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The chief historian of Israel’s vaunted Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial defended her role in an Israeli-Polish Holocaust declaration that caused a firestorm in Israel when it was published in major newspapers last week.

In an interview with the Kan public broadcaster — her first public comments since the furor began — Prof. Dina Porat insisted “we can live with” much of the controversial declaration’s claims about the Holocaust.

The declaration was released on June 27 by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Polish counterpart, Mateusz Morawiecki, as part of an agreement signed by the two that ended the spat between Israel and Poland over a controversial Polish law that criminalized any accusation of the Polish nation being “responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich.”
The joint declaration was issued minutes after the Polish parliament passed legislation to remove the troubling passages and President Anderzej Duda signed it into law.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki visits the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Who Saved Jews during WWII, in Markowa, Poland, on Februay 2, 2018. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)

The statement concerned the Holocaust and Poland’s role in it. It declared the term “Polish death camps” to be “blatantly erroneous” and said that the wartime Polish government-in-exile “attempted to stop this Nazi activity by trying to raise awareness among the Western allies to the systematic murder of the Polish Jews.” It also rejected anti-Semitism and “anti-Polonism.”

Most controversially, it condemned “every single case of cruelty against Jews perpetrated by Poles during…World War II,” but noted “heroic acts of numerous Poles, especially the Righteous Among the Nations, who risked their lives to save Jewish people.”

On Thursday, Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial and research center, released a scathing analysis of the amended law and joint statement. The joint declaration issued by Warsaw and Jerusalem “contains highly problematic wording that contradicts existing and accepted historical knowledge in this field,” the institution said in a press release.

The joint declaration caused a political firestorm in Israel last week, after an NGO with links to the Polish government decided to publish its contents, translated into local languages, in newspapers in Israel, Poland, Germany, the United States, and elsewhere.

Throughout the furor, Netanyahu’s chief negotiators in the secret talks with Poland that led to the agreement insisted that Porat, a renowned historian of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, had accompanied the talks throughout the negotiating process, and that “historical statements that appear in the declaration were approved by her.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on June 27, 2018, to discuss Poland’s amended Holocaust Law. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Porat denied that claim on Sunday, saying she had indeed been consulted on the talks, but only on a “voluntary, personal and confidential basis,” and not as a representative of Yad Vashem.

Nor did she “approve” every statement. “No one committed to change every word I asked to be changed,” she said.

The Times of Israel reported last week that Porat did not see the final draft of the statement before it was made public. But, she insisted on Sunday, the text nevertheless reflected a legitimate demand by the Poles.

“I don’t think you can accuse the entire Polish nation of persistently targeting [Jews] in a systematic way” during the Holocaust, she said. “The Poles really were victims” of the Nazis as well.

She said she accepted the criticism that the statement included language that appeared to magnify Polish aid to Jews while seeming to minimize the complicity of Poles in the Nazi persecution.

“They don’t want their crimes to be central to their consciousness or identity. They want a different identity,” she said.

Illustrative: Jews digging a trench in which they were later buried after being shot, in Ponary, Poland. (Courtesy of Yad Vashem)

Asked about the declaration’s apparent equating of anti-Semitism and “anti-Polonism,” she tried to offer the Polish view.

“The Poles have protested that we have forgiven the Germans, because of the reparations, and therefore we don’t badmouth the Germans as much as we badmouth the Poles. They claim that Germany bought our forgiveness with money, while they say, ‘We’re a poor people.’” That’s what the Polish side means when it complains of “anti-Polonism,” she said.

In the interview, Porat agreed with Yad Vashem’s criticism of one particular sentence in the declaration that has drawn the fiercest opprobrium in Israel. It said: “Some people, regardless of their origin, religion, or worldview, revealed their darkest side at that time.”

Yad Vashem characterized the sentence as an “outrageous insinuation that Jews also revealed ‘their darkest side at that time.’”

It was a “very bad sentence, poorly phrased,” Porat said. Those who revealed their “darkest side,” she insisted, “were Poles and they were Catholics.”


Bennett assails Israel-Poland declaration as ‘betrayal of Holocaust victims’

Education Minister Naftali Bennett assails a joint Israeli-Polish declaration signed by the two nations’ prime ministers that Poland believes exonerates Poles from responsibility for the Holocaust.

“The joint declaration of Israel and the government of Poland is a disgrace, saturated with lies, that betrays the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust. As minister of education, entrusted with passing on the memory of the Holocaust, I reject it completely. It has no factual basis and won’t be learned in the education system,” Bennett says in a Thursday morning statement on Twitter.

“I demand that the prime minister cancel the declaration or bring it to the government for approval.”

And he adds: “The declaration describes supposed systematic actions by the Polish government in exile and the Polish underground to help the Jewish people. This description does not fit the reality. These actions were few and not central [to the Polish resistance’s work], and certainly weren’t systematic.”

The joint declaration was signed last week, and has been translated and published in full-page ads in newspapers around the world by a foundation affiliated with the Polish government.

The appearance of the ads triggered criticism in Israel, with some people arguing that they were proof the Israeli government, by agreeing to issue the statement, had handed Poland a PR victory in its battle to portray Poles primarily as victims of Nazism rather than accomplices in committing atrocities. Critics say the joint Polish-Israeli agreement downplays the role of many Poles who willingly cooperated with the Nazis.


Claude Lanzmann, acclaimed director of documentary ‘Shoah,’ dies at 92

‘Shoah,’ telling the story of the decimation of European Jewry during World War II, considered most important documentary on Holocaust ever made

Claude Lanzmann poses for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’ and the closing ceremony of the 71st international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Saturday, May 19, 2018. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)

PARIS (AP) — French Director Claude Lanzmann, whose 9½-hour masterpiece “Shoah” bore unflinching witness to the Holocaust through the testimonies of Jewish victims, German executioners and Polish bystanders, has died at the age of 92.

Gallimard, the publishing house for Lanzmann’s autobiography, said he died Thursday morning at a hospital in Paris. It gave no further details.

The power of “Shoah,” filmed in the 1970s during Lanzmann’s trips to the barren Polish landscapes where the slaughter of Jews was planned and executed, was in viewing the Holocaust as an event in the present, rather than as history. It contained no archival footage, no musical score — just the landscape, trains and recounted memories.

Lanzmann was 59 when the movie, his second, came out in 1985. It defined the Holocaust for those who saw it, and defined him as a filmmaker.

“I knew that the subject of the film would be death itself. Death rather than survival,” Lanzmann wrote in his autobiography. “For 12 years I tried to stare relentlessly into the black sun of the Shoah.”

“Shoah” was nearly universally praised. Roger Ebert called it “one of the noblest films ever made” and Time Out and The Guardian were among those ranking it the greatest documentary of all time. The Polish government was a notable dissenter, which dismissed the film as “anti-Polish propaganda” (but later allowed “Shoah” to be aired in Poland).

In 2013, nearly three decades later, Lanzmann revisited the Holocaust with “The Last of the Unjust,” focusing on his interviews in 1975 with a Vienna rabbi who was the last “elder” of the Theresienstadt ghetto, which was used by the Nazis to fool visitors into believing that the Jews were being treated humanely.

In a statement, outgoing chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Natan Sharansky, said that Lanzmann’s dedication to commemorating the Holocaust was “unparalleled.”

“Claude Lanzmann was single-handedly responsible for keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive in the hearts and minds of so many around the world. His magnum opus, Shoah, captured the horrors of that period through the personal testimonies of survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators alike and was the first time many were confronted with the reality of the Holocaust as told by those who were there,” said Sharansky.

“His personal dedication to commemorating the Shoah was unparalleled, and he traveled around the world, even in his later years, to ensure the memory of the victims was never forgotten. For that, we owe him a great debt of gratitude. May his memory be a blessing.”

Lanzmann was born Nov. 27, 1925, in Paris, the child of French Jews. After his mother left in 1934 and the war broke out, Claude and his two siblings moved to a farm where their father timed his children as they practiced escaping to a shelter he had dug.

Lanzmann ultimately joined the Resistance as a Communist and became intellectually enamored with Jean-Paul Sartre, whose “Anti-Semite and Jew” formed the philosophical underpinning of what would later be his life’s work.

Lanzmann joined Sartre’s circle and ended up having an affair with Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre’s companion who was 17 years older than the young acolyte. Lanzmann left for Israel and moved in with Beauvoir when he returned, from 1952 to 1959, according to “The Patagonia Hare,” his autobiography. Sartre, Lanzmann’s hero, became a constant in their life together.

File—Jean-Paul Sartre, left, and Simone de Beauvoir leave a police station June 26, 1970, released after they were picked up by police on a Paris street corner for the distribution of a left wing newspaper. (AP Photo/str/MICOL)

“So I was an opportunist — ‘on the make’ you say. But she was beautiful. My attraction to her was genuine,” he once told Beauvoir’s biographer. Long after their affair ended, Beauvoir provided much of the financial support for “Shoah.”

Lanzmann tinkered in politics and journalism, working periodically for the journal France Dimanche, taking on freelance assignments. He joined Sartre in signing the Manifesto for the 121, calling on French soldiers to refuse fighting in Algeria, and was prosecuted.

In 1968, he did television reporting on the Israeli Army in the Sinai Peninsula, which led to his first film: “Israel, Why.”

Beauvoir, writing about Lanzmann in her memoir “Force of Circumstance” described him as someone who “seemed to be carrying the weight of a whole ancestral experience on his shoulders.”

It was this weight that ultimately led a vagabond intellectual to examine the defining event of 20th century Judaism, obsessively tracking down those who were closest to the dead. “The film would have to take up the ultimate challenge; take the place of the non-existent images of death in the gas chambers,” he wrote.

The film opens with Simon Srebnik, who as a 13-year-old Jewish detainee sang for the SS and fed their rabbits at the Chelmno concentration camp. Crediting a sweet voice with his survival, Srebnik performs the same songs for Lanzmann as he is rowed along the placid river that leads to the camp. Later, it is revealed that among Srebnik’s tasks was to dump bags filled crushed bones of Jews into the same waters.

He filmed Abraham Bomba at work in a Tel Aviv barbershop, describing how he cut women’s hair inside the gas chambers at Treblinka. With periodic questions by Lanzmann, Bomba recounts how after each group of women was done, the barbers were asked to leave for a few minutes, the women were gassed and then the men returned to cut the hair of dozens more naked women accompanied by their children.

“This room is the last place where they went in alive and they will never go out alive again,” he said. “We just cut their hair to make them believe they’re getting a nice haircut.” The barber begged to stop when he recalled seeing the wife and sister of a friend come in, but Lanzmann prodded him to continue.

Lanzmann sometimes used secret cameras to record testimony, including that of Franz Suchomel, a former guard at Treblinka who pointed like a schoolteacher to a blueprint of the camp to show how bodies were disposed of, describing new gas chambers that could “finish off 3,000 people in two hours.” At one point during the interview, Lanzmann promised Suchomel that he would not be recorded.

One of the most harrowing interviews Lanzmann did was also among the briefest in “Shoah” — Yitzhak Zuckerman, a leader of the Jewish resistance in Warsaw, who survived Treblinka and saw untold numbers of friends and comrades die. He told Lanzmann bitterly, “if you could lick my heart, it would poison you.”

At the film’s premier, the French journalist Jean Daniel told Lanzmann: “This justifies a life.”

Lanzmann is survived by his third wife, Dominique, and his daughter Angelique. His son Felix died last year.



‘I WANTED TO TELL WHAT IT WAS REALLY LIKE TO FLEE THE NAZIS’ After fleeing Nazi Germany, Judith Kerr became Britain’s favorite storyteller

The daughter of an acclaimed Jewish essayist exiled from Berlin is now one of the world’s most renowned children’s authors, with a play opening on London’s West End on June 28

LONDON — Among the 25,000 books consumed by the flames in Berlin’s Opernplatz on May 10, 1933 were those of Alfred Kerr.

An acclaimed Jewish essayist and critic who edited the theater pages of the liberal Berliner Tageblatt newspaper, Kerr’s writings had earned him the nickname the “Kulturpapst.”

They had also earned him the emnity of the Nazis; a hostility which the socialist writer heartily returned.

Given the fate to which Josef Goebbels consigned Kerr’s books, it is perhaps fitting that his daughter — who turned 95 on June 14 and is still going strong — is now one of Britain’s best-loved children’s authors and illustrators.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Judith Kerr’s first book, “The Tiger Who Came To Tea.” It was an instant classic, remains in print and is one of the best-selling children’s books of all time.

Its premise – an uninvited tiger turns up at a child’s home, and eats and drinks everything, including her father’s beer and, most famously, “all the water in the tap” – is both simple and surreal. With its accompanying sketches by Kerr, it has charmed and delighted both children and adults for half a century.

Ten years ago, “The Tiger Who Came To Tea” was turned into a stage play, which has been revived to mark the anniversary and is about to begin a run in London’s West End on June 28 before commencing a nationwide UK tour.

Together, Kerr’s 30-plus books have notched up 10 million sales and been translated into 20 languages. Alongside “The Tiger Who Came To Tea,” Kerr’s fictional cat, Mog, who features in 17 of her picture books, is equally beloved. That the series – whose feline lead character was inspired by her own cat – spanned three decades is further testament to the enduring appeal of Kerr’s writing and drawing.

For some, Kerr’s own childhood suggests a hidden meaning to the “Tiger Who Came To Tea.”

‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea,’ by Judith Kerr. (Courtesy)

Alfred fled Germany for Prague following a tip-off from a friendly policeman that his passport was about to be seized by the Nazis. He had long been in their sights. Kerr would subsequently find out that her father was driven to his weekly radio broadcast in a car accompanied by an armed guard.

Several weeks later, on the night before the general election of March 5, 1933 which consolidated Hitler’s grip on power, Judith, her mother, and brother, Michael, caught the train to Switzerland.

At the frontier, 9-year-old Judith, who later admitted to not being “scared enough,” nearly gave the family away during the passport inspection. The threat Hitler’s victory posed was real enough: Years later, her mother told her that, on the morning after their victory, the Nazis turned up at the Kerr’s home at 8:00 a.m. to take away their passports.

In Zurich, the family was reunited. However, the country was not particularly welcoming to Jewish refugees and Alfred struggled to find work at a newspaper. From Switzerland the Kerrs moved to Paris, finally arriving in London in 1936.

But even the hoped-for sanctuary of Britain initially proved illusory. The cheap hotel in which the cash-strapped family lived for a time was bombed during the Blitz. Her brother, who was by then studying at Cambridge University, was arrested as an “enemy alien” and interned on the Isle of Wight.

None of that, however, shook Kerr’s youthful faith in the country that would become her home.

“We got bombed out, it was a hard time, but it wasn’t easy for anybody. I was hugely struck by the generosity and kindness and tolerance of people during the war,” she told the BBC five years ago.

“My parents still spoke with a German accent. But there we were in the Blitz, people being killed every night, and nobody ever said anything nasty to them. I couldn’t wait after the war to become British and belong here,” she said.

Indeed, Kerr has even been generous in her recollections of her brother’s brief spell in an internment camp.

“This is a good country, you know,” she suggested to an interviewer decades later. “Germans were classed as enemy aliens, but people like us were officially called friendly enemy aliens. We had to report to the police if we went more than five miles away so we knew them well. My mother went straight to them when we heard Michael was interned and they tried to get a call through to him.”

Alfred Kerr’s books were burned by the Nazis on 10 May 1933. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/ Wikimedia Commons)

Michael was released, joined the RAF and later became a prominent lawyer and a judge at the Court of Appeal.

Unsurprisingly, her parents – who carried suicide pills throughout the war so fearful were they of a German invasion – were more affected by their experiences.

Alfred Kerr traveled to Germany just once after the war. It was both a triumphant and tragic return. As he entered a Hamburg theater to see a production of Romeo and Juliet in 1948, he received a standing ovation from the audience. The next morning, he suffered a paralyzing stroke. His wife, Julia, herself an accomplished composer and musician, helped him to commit suicide shortly afterwards.

After a stint working for the Red Cross during the war, Judith received a scholarship to study at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and became an artist, decorating children’s nurseries.

Alfred Kerr. (Public Domain)

Two years after a chance meeting at the canteen of the BBC, she married the writer and scriptwriter Nigel Kneale (who was most famous for the science fiction series “The Quatermass Experiment”). The couple had two children: Tacy, an artist, and Matthew, an award-winning novelist.

Michael Rosen, the children’s novelist and poet, has argued that “The Tiger Who Came To Tea” has a “whole cloud of meanings” and that, subconsciously, it may reflect the traumas of Kerr’s early life.

“Judith knows about dangerous people who come to your house and take people away. She was told as a young child that her father could be grabbed at any moment by either the Gestapo or the SS — he was in great danger,” the former children’s laureate has suggested.

“So I don’t know whether Judith did it consciously or not — I wouldn’t want to go there — but the point is he’s a jokey tiger, but he is a tiger,” said Rosen.

It is a notion which continues to upset many readers of the book and which Kerr has herself dismissed.

“I love Michael Rosen, and he knows I think this is mad. For one thing, I was so lucky: I never saw the Gestapo. I never saw anything bad happening in Germany. Never. Because we left before Hitler took over,” Kerr saidearlier this year.

“I think if we’d stayed even a week longer, it would have been very different. So, no. I wasn’t haunted by anything,” she said.

The book’s inspiration, Kerr says, is much simpler: a bedtime story she told to her young daughter, which arose from their shared love of visiting the zoo. Later, when her children were at school, Kerr decided to commit the oft-repeated tale to pen and paper. She had been struck, too, by how “boring” her son had found the children’s books which were available at the time.

Kerr rejects any notion that her own childhood was anything but happy.

“I had a tiny bit of trauma which I didn’t even notice,” she told a children’s online forum.

“We had a far more interesting childhood than we would have had otherwise – and our parents were terribly good and made it feel like an adventure. They were terribly sensible,” Kerr said.

At the same time, believes Jessamy Calkin of the Daily Telegraph, “the terrible consequences of Nazi rule are something that has permeated [Kerr’s] life.”

‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’ by Judith Kerr. (Courtesy)

She notes both Kerr’s dedication in one of her books — to “the one and a half million Jewish children who didn’t have my luck, and all the pictures they might have painted” — and her comments on the BBC’s “Desert Island Discs” in 2004.

“I think about them almost every day now, because I have had such a happy and fulfilled life and they’d have given anything to have just a few days of it, and I hope I’ve not wasted any of it,” said Kerr on the Discs.

Kerr has also suggested that she finds visiting Germany difficult, notingthat the station she and her brother used when they were going on swimming trips now contains a plaque reminding passengers that it was the point from which Berlin’s Jews were deported to Auschwitz.

Aside from the joy she has given, Kerr has also provided an invaluable introduction for many children to darker subjects. Her semi-autobiographical trilogy – “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit,” “Bombs on Aunty Dainty,” and “A Small Person Far Away” – spans the family’s flight from the Nazis, through their experiences in wartime London to the first years of her marriage.

Told through the eyes of the fictional character, Anna, and her brother, Max, “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit” won the German Youth Literature Prize.

First published in 1971, it is a set text in Germany primary schools, was dramatized by BBC radio last year, and a film adaptation is reportedly now in production. Its title refers to a toy rabbit — “it was quite old and wasn’t very pink anymore” — which she left behind when the family escaped to Switzerland.

She was moved to write the book by a remark made by her 8-year-old son after watching “The Sound of Music”: “Now we now what it was like when Mummy was a little girl.”

“I wanted to describe what it was like – what it was really like – to flee from the Nazis,” Kerr later wrote in an introduction to the trilogy.

“When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit” has light moments. As their train passes through southern England on its journey to London, the family is initially confused by the fact that each town and village appears to be called “Bovril” (they had mistaken large boards on the platforms advertising a then-popular, now iconic, British drink for place names).

It also captures well a child’s confusion at the adult world. Hearing that the Nazis have put a thousand mark price on her beloved Papa’s head, Anna envisages him being buried in a room under “a terrible shower of heavy coins.”

But, as the Independent on Sunday’s former literary editor, Katy Guest, has argued, some of Kerr’s writing is also deeply poignant.

“The scene in which big brother Max surmises that Hitler is probably playing with their Snakes and Ladders, and Anna replies, ‘And snuggling my Pink Rabbit!’ must be one of the most heartbreaking in modern literature,” Guest wrote.

Kerr has always firmly rebutted comparisons with Anne Frank — “I don’t think I’m in that class” — but acknowledges that “I have been many younger children’s introduction to the Holocaust.”

That assessment received the royal seal of approval in 2012 when Kerr was honored by the Queen for services to children’s literature and Holocaust education.

Eighty-five years after she escaped the clutches of the Nazis and half a century after she first told the tale of a friendly tiger’s unexpected visit, Judith Kerr remains Britain’s favorite storyteller.


LeMond, Holocaust survivors ride from Auschwitz to celebrate Jewish life

One survivor bikes the entire 55 mile journey (89 kilometers) from death camp to a Jewish cultural center in Krakow

Three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, right, Marcel Zielinski, a Holocaust survivor, center, and Jonathan Ornstein, the director of the Jewish Community Center of Krakow, pose for the media in Oswiecim, Poland, on Friday June 29, 2018. Three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, two Holocaust survivors and dozens of others took part in a symbolic ride from Auschwitz-Birkenau to a Jewish cultural center in Poland to support the renewal of Jewish life.(AP Photo/Katarzyna Bednarczyk)

WARSAW, Poland  — Three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, two Holocaust survivors and some 200 others took part in a symbolic ride from Auschwitz-Birkenau to a Jewish cultural center in Poland to support the renewal of Jewish life.

The ride Friday began at the site of the former Nazi German death camp and ended at the Jewish Community Center of Krakow, 55 miles (89 kilometers) away, site of a growing Jewish community.

LeMond described the ride as a powerful experience, saying, “It was an amazing event riding with two survivors 73 years after the Holocaust … We should never forget!”

Jonathan Ornstein, the director of the center in Krakow, who himself took part in the ride, said one survivor, Marcel Zielinski, biked the entire distance, while the second did 14 miles and traveled the rest of the way by car.

Three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond rides with Holocaust survivors and others in Oswiecim, Poland, on Friday June 29, 2018. Three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, two Holocaust survivors and dozens of others took part in a symbolic ride from Auschwitz-Birkenau to a Jewish cultural center in Poland to support the renewal of Jewish life. (AP Photo/Katarzyna Bednarczyk)

He said LeMond and his wife a day earlier visited the site of Auschwitz, where barracks and the ruins of gas chambers are an enduring testament of the atrocities committed there. They were also spending the weekend with his community.

“It was incredibly exciting for us to have such a famous international cyclist not only participate in the ride but get to know Krakow’s story of Jewish rebirth,” Ornstein said.

On the eve of the Holocaust, Poland was home to 3.3 million Jews. Most were murdered by Nazi Germany in death camps like Auschwitz and in ghettos.